(Bloomberg Opinion) -- No modern president has made more of his determination to break out of the patterns set by his predecessors than Donald Trump — and on issues ranging from free trade to North Korea to dealing with allies, he has done so. When it comes to America’s war in Afghanistan, however, Trump has simply been more of the same.
Both George W. Bush and Barack Obama made big promises about the U.S. mission in Afghanistan, only to vastly scale back their ambitions over time. Trump is settling into the same groove. As we reach a NATO summit at which the alliance will once again discuss its involvement in the “forever war,” Afghanistan has become the “forgotten war” under yet another American president.
The forgetting started early. After 9/11, the U.S. overthrew the Taliban, routed al-Qaeda and installed a representative government. Bush spoke of a “Marshall Plan” that would produce a thriving, democratic Afghanistan.
Those promises soon ran up against the tremendous demands of nation-building in a society ravaged by decades of war, and then the diversion of resources and attention needed when the administration shifted focus to Iraq. By Bush’s second term, the situation was deteriorating rapidly, and U.S. forces could do little more than hold the line. “In Afghanistan, we do what we can,” explained Admiral Michael Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. “In Iraq, we do what we must.”
Barack Obama initially pledged to recommit to the “necessary war” in Afghanistan, and he pushed nearly 60,000 additional troops into the fight in 2009-2010. Yet even as Obama was approving those deployments, he was blanching at the high costs of a prolonged counterinsurgency mission, and he was losing faith in the corrupt, incompetent government of Hamid Karzai. By 2011, a thoroughly disillusioned Obama had initiated a steady draw-down of U.S. forces; by 2015-2016, there were fewer than 10,000 U.S. troops remaining in Afghanistan.
Enter Trump. Unlike Obama, Trump had never considered Afghanistan a good or necessary war, and his first instinct — as he publicly acknowledged — was to complete the withdrawal his predecessor had started. Yet his advisers, notably former National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster and Secretary of Defense James Mattis, gradually persuaded him to modestly escalate the U.S. presence in hopes of rolling back Taliban gains and keeping the pressure on resurgent terrorist groups. “We will push onward to victory,” Trump declared in August 2017.
Yet no sooner had he intensified the war than he seemed to forget about it. Trump has yet to visit U.S. troops in Afghanistan (although his Secretary of State, Mike Pompeo, did so earlier this week); he hardly speaks in public of the U.S. mission there.
The most unconventional of presidents has fallen into the convention set by his predecessors: Promising victory in Afghanistan, and then promptly shoving that conflict into the background.
This pattern has persisted in large part because the U.S. war in Afghanistan has settled into a strategic and political equilibrium. On the ground, that equilibrium entails doing enough not to lose, but not enough to win. Under three presidents, America has made the investments necessary to prevent the Taliban from sweeping back into power and terrorists — al-Qaeda and now Islamic State — from again making Afghanistan their playground. Yet under three presidents, the U.S. has declined to go all-in for sufficient time to crush the Taliban militarily or to create a stable Afghan government that could survive an eventual U.S. departure.
That reluctance has stemmed from both the unceasing difficulty of these tasks and because the resulting costs of a more decisive approach would compromise other missions and objectives, at home and abroad. And so although presidents have occasionally tried to change the equilibrium — Obama planned, for a time, to withdraw U.S. forces entirely before his presidency ended; Trump was tempted to do likewise — they have ended up muddling through.
That tendency has been reinforced by the political equilibrium. Americans have not exactly been screaming for their leaders to spend more blood and treasure in an underdeveloped, landlocked country in southwest Asia. But no president has wanted to be the leader who pulls out of Afghanistan and then sees the country fall apart again — thereby creating a potential threat to the U.S.
Obama learned that there is a political cost to such failure in 2014, when ISIS overran much of Iraq following the withdrawal of U.S. troops. That precedent played a key role in preventing him from winding down the mission in Afghanistan in 2015-2016. America may be stuck in a rut in Afghanistan, but that rut still seems more comfortable — politically and strategically — than the alternatives.
That rut, moreover, is not an entirely bad place to be. The U.S. does have real — if limited — interests in Afghanistan. It may well be worth keeping 10,000 or so U.S. troops there if doing so prevents the Taliban from winning the war and keeps Islamic State and al-Qaeda from re-consolidating safe havens that they could use to execute major terrorist attacks. Particularly if the U.S. fights in a relatively inexpensive way, and if the NATO allies keep defraying the costs of the mission through troop contributions and economic support, such a commitment is probably sustainable.
As the U.S. war in Afghanistan completes its 17th year, however, the looming question is whether the equilibrium could break at some point. There are three plausible scenarios in which it could do so.
First, the U.S. could conceivably find itself in a much bigger confrontation — even an outright war — against Russia in the Baltics, or against North Korea and its nuclear program. Either such conflict would consume vast resources, which could easily make the U.S. commitment in Afghanistan seem like an unaffordable luxury. This scenario is frightening but hardly impossible, given the tensions in both of these areas and the propensity for risk-taking that both Vladimir Putin and Kim Jong Un have shown.
Second, NATO’s support for the Afghan mission could break. The Europeans have counterterrorism interests in Afghanistan, but the countries that have stuck with the mission for so long have done so mostly because they want to please the U.S.
Trump, however, has taken such an adversarial approach to the alliance that some members may eventually decide that they have better uses for their troops and money. This won’t happen overnight; NATO actually increased its own commitment to Afghanistan after Trump’s escalation in August 2017, taking the number of non-U.S. NATO troops from roughly 5,000 to 8,000. But if Trump succeeds in driving a wedge between Washington and its transatlantic partners, the Afghanistan mission will not remain insulated from the effects.
Third, Trump could simply decide to call it quits. Where Trump differs from Bush and Obama is that he never had any real enthusiasm for the Afghan campaign. He is also somewhat less vulnerable to the political costs of withdrawal because he made an opposition to prolonged nation-building missions a central plank of his campaign.
In 2017, Trump’s gut instinct — to get out — was overcome by the nearly unified opposition of his key advisers. But the Trump we saw in 2017 is not the Trump we have seen more recently. Trump 2.0 is trusting his instincts, overruling (and sometimes firing) the “adults” who oppose him, and grabbing control of policy on issues from trade to the Iran nuclear deal in ways that deliberately antagonize U.S. allies.
If Trump concludes that the U.S. is not getting closer to “victory” in Afghanistan — that marginal progress and the avoidance of defeat is all he can hope for — he may eventually decide that a full break from the strategies and commitments he inherited is the right move after all.
©2018 Bloomberg L.P.